Rojava, Syria, Kurdistan

A Visit to Autonomous Rojava, Part 2

This is a translation of Part II of a Russian article by Alexander Rybin, published on on 3 April, 2015

Days of Uprising – Part II

Part I here

Day 4

“Kumin“ is the Kurdish adaptation of the word “commune“. One Kumin unites a certain amount of families or households (from a few dozens to several hundreds, there are no limits). In their goals and tasks, these communes fully correspond to the Russian term “soviet” (“council”). Their members elect two chairpersons, a man and a woman, and also vote for who will represent them in the council at the next level, the “Mala Gel” (this translates to “people’s house” in Kurdish). Either the chairs or two other people can represent them in the Mala Gel, there is no fixed system. The most important thing is that the members of the Kumin reach an agreement about this.

Abdul-Majid represents his Kumin (240 households) in the Mala Gel, although he is not the chair. All Kumins are united in the Mala Gel. Amudê is a small town. Abdul-Majid is over 60 years old. We are sitting in his home on mattress-like cushions that have been laid out around the wall. In the middle of the room there is a dastarkhan, a table-cloth on which an abundance of food is spread out, the television is on and a film is on – the rules of ordinary Syrian hospitality are followed to the detail.

I ask Abdul-Majid about the socio-political processes in Amudê before and after the anti-government protests in 2011. I find out how the Kurds lived under Bashar al-Assad, how they organised the self-administration when Syrian government forces left the city. As a typical Middle Eastern guy, Abdul-Majid now and then slips into counter-questions─How is life in Russia? How is my family? What do people think of Putin? At the same time, he tries to make his unmarried daughter attractive to my assistant Saami. Later, Abdul-Majid’s family members come in. Our conversation goes on for five hours.

Oil pumps in Rojava that are not working

Until the creation of the Executive and Judicial Councils of Jazira, the local Mala Gel was the main organ of executive power in Amudê. It resolved conflicts between members of the commune, which means it fulfilled a judicial role. The local Asayish were subordinated to it. A year ago, the canton-level councils came into being. The functions of the Mala Gel of Amudê were reduced to its judicial function. If the Mala Gel decides that someone on its territory has committed a serious infringement of the law, it refers the case to the Asayish (who are subordinated to the canton councils), so that the culprit is locked up for a certain amount of time. If the case is complicated and a sentencing requires special competences, the person is sent to the court formed by the Executive and Judicial councils of the canton.

Before the beginning of the 2011 protests against Bashar al-Assad, structures like the Kumin and Mala Gel already existed among the Kurds. Because of the harassment at the hands of the state forces, the Kurds created their own informal organs of self-administration, which were judged as illegal by the central state. The Mukhabarat (secret police) could arrest anyone participating in them. After the government forces departed from the territory of Jazira, the Kumin and the Mala Gel took government functions upon themselves. A little over a year ago, representatives of the Kurdish, Assyrian and Arabic communities decided to give the political system its current form. In January 2014, the forming of the cantons Jazira, Kobanê and Afrin and the unifying territorial entity of Rojava was announced.

In the second half of the day I travel to Qamishlo. I could persuade my assistant Talyal to hitchhike only with difficulty. The driver that stops is Hassan, a Kurd who studied in Moldova. He speaks wonderful Russian. He was trained as a cardiologist and now works for the Red Crescent in the field hospital near the small town Tel Temir. Last week heavy fighting broke out between Islamists and the defence forces of Rojava. Doctor Hassan says that there are many Uzbeks among the fighters of the Islamists. “It’s crawling with them, they are like ants,” he says, “you can trample on them as much as you like, it doesn’t matter, more of them will come.”

A street in Tel Temir

Once we arrive in Qamishlo, we visit a Russian-Kurdish family, one of whose family members, their grandmother, lives in a suburb of Donetsk. Her neighbourhood suffered a lot from the shooting of the Ukrainian army. Humanitarian help only reached the grandmother one single time. They tell me again about the Swedish journalist who was arrested by Syrian security forces a week ago. Again, I hear the opinion that the Swede, to put it mildly, suffers a little bit from dementia. “Have you seen his picture?”, they ask me. I have seen it. Indeed, he resembled a patient from a psychiatric clinic. “Just don’t tell the Kurds, they have elevated him to an icon of the free press here,” the family say to me.

I persuade Talyal to walk to the academy “Mesopotamia”, one of the reasons why we came to Qamishlo. Along the way Talyal explains, “You understand this is a Christian neighbourhood. Most local Christians support Bashar’s regime. So here we risk walking into a patrol of the Syrian army or the Mukhabarat”. Indeed, a Syrian flag hangs on the wall of one of the buildings. The next neighbourhood is Kurdish. There are flags of Iraqi Kurdistan on the balconies, a sign that the inhabitants of these buildings support the KDP, the Kurdish Democratic Party, headed by Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan. Beyond this neighbourhood is the next one, in which we see flags of Rojava. It reminds me of Beirut, which is divided into scores of sectors that all support different parties and religious groups, and where flags are used to mark out the lines of these sectors.

The streets are covered with a lot more rubbish than in Amudê. Most of the houses are half-finished, the streets are pot-holed. A thick plume of dust rises into the air. We come across a gathering. There is a concert because of the elections on Friday. Many women in traditional Kurdish clothes are present. They wave flags of Iraqi Kurdistan and, for some reason, Germany.

We are on the outskirts of the city. There are no more houses. Further on, there is a little mound of earth almost the height of a person. Behind the mound, lush green grass is sprouting. 300 metres from here I see air defense radars and other items of military technology. “This is the airport of Qamishlo. The Syrian army controls it”, explains Talyal. On the field between the war technology and the small mound, children are chasing a ball. The mound finishes in front of the entrance of the Mesopotamia Academy. It was made to keep the entrance safe from gun fire coming from the airport.

The Mespopotamia Academy was opened on the 1st of September 2014. A building of the agricultural university was used for it. The agricultural university continues working, it just has one building less.

Students of Mesopotamia call the processes going on in Rojava a “revolution“, and their academy is one of the elements of the revolution. Anyone who wants to can become a student. There are only 66 people here; more than half of them are young women. The education system is made up of three levels, each of which takes three months to complete. On the second level, students need to select what they want to study in depth: sociology or history. The third level is the last one. There are now 40 students on the first level, 26 on the second one. Anyone who wants to can teach as well, they just need to pass a specialised test. Many people are both students and teachers at the same time. Two people are running the academy together, a man and a woman. They are designated by the Education Committee of the Executive Council of Jazira. The basic textbooks are five publications by Abdullah Ocalan. They also study the works of Marx (in Kurdish his name sounds like “Karla Markas”), Lenin, Sartre, Bookchin and ancient Greek philosophers – the list is very long and mostly consists of authors who developed socialist and communist ideas.

Corridor of the Mesopotamia Academy

Those who graduate from the academy can, for example, work in the committees of the canton councils. “People with a new type of thinking are needed for our revolution to succeed,” one of the student-teachers says. “We try to teach people this new kind of thinking”. I ask four students: “Have you studied at any other university before?” Two guys have studied at the university in Damascus, two young women in Aleppo. It must be said that the Syrian system of higher education is regarded as the best in the Arab world. Right now there are only Kurds among the students in the Mesopotamia Academy, but they hope that Arabs and Assyrians will also join. And foreigners. They propose that I become the first foreign student – or teacher, if I like. I don’t promise them anything. I say in Arabic, “inshallah” (“if God wants it”). In Syria, people use this expression when they don’t want to say “no”.


Day 5

Apart from helping foreign journalists, the media centre in Jazira is busy with translating documents published by the local councils into English (there are future plans for translating into Russian, French, etc.). I explain to my assistants Talyal and Saami that they should not use the terminology that characterises the capitalist state, such as “president”, “government”, “ministers”, etc., when translating. After all, they call the head of the Executive Council of Jazira “Prime Minister”, the heads of the Judicial Council in their version are “Co-presidents”. But neither Talyal nor Saami understand my point of view. For them, they are doing the best they can: adapting the information about Jazira and Rojava for English-speaking people living in modern, capitalist states.

“Otherwise, how will foreign readers understand what the Mala Gel is, or what the Majlis is? They will get confused,” is Talyal’s argument. Another worker at the media centre gets what I mean – Berfin. As she tells me herself, most of her friends are in the people’s self-defense forces, the YPG and YPJ. She also wanted to join them, but her friends persuaded her not to. With her higher education she would be of more use in the civilian structures. That’s how she ended up in the media centre. “We are damaging Rojava and our revolution if we don’t translate correctly. When reading our translations, foreigners will not see anything new in us if we adapt everything to their own realities,” she says, agreeing with me. A contradiction emerges between the revolutionary movement and the Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality, the wish to please the guest. Our argument does not lead to any kind of change. Talyal and Saami keep on translating with “adaptations for the capitalist foreigner”. “At least we have democracy─we can argue about this and then proceed as we think necessary,” Saami concludes.

I don’t have anything special to do today. Tomorrow, the elections will be held. A concert and a lecture are held outside at the tent where the candidates for the council gather in the evenings. They are calling for people to come and vote, and talk about where and how the voting process will function.

In the south-east, just outside of Amudê, there is a clay hill as tall as a two-floor building. It is called Tell Shamula. It stands out between a few traditional houses in front of a background of green fields. Berfin, who is a local, tells me that it has been suggested that the ruins of an ancient town lie underneath the hill. It’s even possible that it’s a civilisation as yet unknown to historians. In the profile of the hill, arched walkways and stonework can clearly be seen. Around seven years ago, a group of American scientists arrived. They carried out a superficial examination of Tell Shamula and came to the conclusion that this was probably an old military barracks or a caravanserai, but not a very old one. Among the ancient artefacts of Mesopotamia, Tell-Shamula does not hold any particular interest, that’s why the hill has remained untouched by the spades, shovels and brooms of archaeologists. Children have made a ditch for their games on top of it.


Day 6

The 13th of March is election day. There will be elections for the councils at municipal level. In the morning, Talyal and I go to the polling stations in Qamishlo. Members for two councils will be elected, one on each side of the city, the eastern part and the western part. In each of the councils there will be 32 members. In the western part of the city there are four polling stations; in the eastern part, six. Between these two parts there are neighbourhoods and streets that are controlled by the Syrian government forces. There are no polling stations in those parts.

Voting will take place from 8am to 8pm. Everyone above 18 years of age can vote.

It’s 10am. We are going to a school in the West where a polling station is located. At the entrance we are met by a queue of dozens of people. There is a hubbub, the atmosphere of a vibrant bazar and children are busy playing at the side. Members of the Asayish (every polling station is guarded) help us to get in, while others are not let through. Inside it’s as packed as outside. On the wall, directly opposite the entrance, hang the portraits of Hafez Assad, Bashar and his deceased older brother Basil. What catches the eye immediately is that there are mostly women here. The majority of them are dressed in traditional attire, which means they are from the poor, little educated layers of society. Men let them through to the front of the queue, which means that a crowd of women has accumulated at the side of the entrance of the office where the voting is happening.

A young woman closes off the door inside – she is a member of the electoral commission. She lets people in and out one by one. There are around fifty candidates, each of them with a photo and their full name, written in Arabic. There is no information whether this person is affiliated with a political party or not. You can put a mark next to 32 candidates or less. If you tick more than that, the ballot is invalidated. Observers are sitting on benches and chairs along the wall. To get a form you need to show your ID. Only locals have the right to vote. The corner of the office is walled off with blue material; behind it is the voting booth. The ballot box is sealed. Whoever voted has to dunk their finger in an ink that is hard to wash off. If anyone tries to vote in a different polling station, the electoral commission will see that this person already cast a ballot. People outside the office begin to argue and bicker. They tell the young woman at the door that the voting process must speed up. A middle-aged woman asks advice from another young woman from the electoral commission. She wants to know who she should “tick” on the form. The young woman shrugs, lifts her eyes to the sky and says, “Oh, Allah. You have to choose yourself, we do not have the right to tell you anything. Sorry.”

We go to the next polling station. Here, there are considerably less people – it is the building of one of the local committees. They had earlier told locals that voting would be carried out at schools, maybe that’s why there is no rush here. The guards of the Asayish sit in the shade on plastic chairs, relaxing. The queue regulates itself. There are mostly men in the queue who look like the well-off type.


Talyal does not want to go to the polling stations in the east of the city because that would mean going across parts of the city that are controlled by “the regime”. He proposes returning to Amudê and following the election process there. However, it turns out we anyway need to go to a regime-controlled neighbourhood ─ the bus station is surrounded by buildings where Syrian flags and portraits of Bashar al-Assad are hanging. Alongside those buildings are the posts of Syrian soldiers. The soldiers don’t pay any attention to us at all. Again, I remember the story of the Swedish journalist. To get the “regime” soldiers to arrest you, you have to really provoke them.

There is a bakery to the left of one of the road crossings which is controlled by the self-defence forces of Rojava; it has a yellow-red-green flag of Rojava and a big portrait of Abdullah Ocalan. On the right is a school controlled by “the regime” ─ a Syrian flag and a big portrait of Bashar al-Assad are on the facade. This exemplifies what’s so specific about Qamishlo.

The football stadium is the only one in the city. Before the war, this was the home of the local football team “al-Jihad”. Until two days ago, the stadium was under the control of the “regime”. The councils of Jazira wanted to organise a large-scale celebration ─ the anniversary of the death of several protesters in anti-government demonstrations in 2004. On this occasion, the stadium was peacefully ─ without noise, without a fight ─ taken over by the Asayish. There are now Rojava flags waving above the entrance. In close vicinity to the stadium is the city park. “We won’t go in there,” says Talyal. The park is regime-territory, it’s possible to meet patrols of Syrian police there.

We return to Amudê. There are more than ten schools here. We don’t know which ones have polling stations. We ask people on the streets. A man sitting in front of his shop answers that he does not recognise the elections, he could not care less where the polling stations are. Another man has not even heard that there are elections today. Both these men are around 40 years old. We ask a group of guys who seem to be around 25. They know and explain the way to us.

In the local polling stations, again, most voters are women. The electoral commission, again, is made up mostly of women. There are observers on chairs along the wall. I ask how the voting is going, if any breach of the rules has been noted. The observers aver that everything is “tamam” (“good” in Syrian Arabic), no infringements of the rules have been witnessed and everyone is happy with the ongoing process. 36 candidates are vying for 22 seats in the city council. Amongst them, the number of women and men are about equal.

The members of the electoral committee don’t know exactly when the results will be ready. “Maybe tomorrow,” they say. These are the first elections in the Jazira Canton, trapped as it is between the embargo of Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, and the war front with the Islamic State. Is it necessary to demand precise deadlines from the electoral committees? The majority of the people who support today’s election process were excluded from the political life of the country and the region before the beginning of the anti-government protests and the war in Syria. The fact that these elections came about is one of the great successes of the Jazira Canton and the Rojava region as a whole.


Day 7

Almost everyone I manage to talk with in Jazira expresses sceptical views about the airstrikes on the positions of the Islamic califate by the US-headed coalition. Often the term “political game” is used. Abdul-Majid, the chair of the Kumin in the Mala Gel of Amudê, says, for example: “Saddam Hussein had an army of 700,000 in Iraq. The Americans and their allies defeated it in two months. Yet, they haven’t managed to defeat the Islamic Califate in half a year.”

Doctor Hassan from the field hospital of the Red Crescent: “The Islamists drive in the middle of the day in long columns of dozens of cars with flags. As if the American aviation did not see them. They are taking the main roads of Syria and Iraq, not some kind of backstreets or small paths.”

Elizabeth Gaurie, the vice chair of the Executive Council of Rojava: “Yet, if it hadn’t been for the bombing campaign by the US and its allies in Kobanê, we maybe wouldn’t have been able to defend the city.”

Saami, Berfin and I travel to the small town Tel Temir, where there are currently clashes between the self-defence forces of Rojava and the fighters of the Islamic califate. It is the most active “hotspot” in Jazira at the moment.

In the summer of 2014, the Islamic califate occupied regions alongside Jazira. However, the Islamists did not start any attacks. Separate clashes happened to the west of the small town Ras-el-Ayn (Serê kaniyê in Kurdish), on the Syrian-Turkish border. The front line did not move at all because of this.

YPJ and YPG fighters relaxing

In the second half of January, the Islamists attacked a village in the south-west of Jazira, where Assyrians were living. In response to that, units of the Kurdish YPG and YPJ forces and the Christian militia “Sutoro” led an offensive on the town Tell Hamis, which is relatively big for the region and which was controlled by the Califate. They succeeded in liberating it as well as the surrounding villages. Then, at the end of February, the Islamists hit the canton from the other side, from the south-west of Tel Temir. Mostly Kurds and orthodox Assyrians lived in the small town and its surroundings. Fighting broke out that was considered pretty intense here, but which in terms of destructiveness was still pretty mild compared with what is happening in Novorossiya [in eastern Ukraine]. (When I showed Berfin pictures of the wreckage in Novorossiya and the military equipment used there, she was surprised that there is almost no information about this war in English media.)

Tel Temir is intact, if not counting potholes and broken windows here and there from shrapnel and bullets, but its streets are empty. It’s a ghost town. The closer you get to the front line, the more houses are destroyed. A hospital on the southern outskirts functions as the barracks of the YPG forces. The fighters are young guys and what are called “men who have seen life”. On the other side of a field, there is a village where Islamists have taken position. Black smoke rises from there. An hour before our arrival, the coalition planes bombed them. The fighters of the YPG say that the coalition is not bombing them enough, and the efficiency varies: “They either hit them, or they drop a bomb next to them and then fly away.” On the whole, the Islamists feel self-assured on this particular piece of the front. They have gathered 45 to 50 armoured vehicles here, despite the absolute control the coalition forces hold over the sky. The situation is difficult to understand ─ why do the USA and its allies not “notice” several tens of armoured vehicles directly on the front line? Why don’t they just wipe them out with one powerful blow?

The YPG and YPJ also have armoured vehicles: a tank, a Soviet-produced MT-LB and an American “Hummer”. They’re trophies. Before the Kurds captured them from the Islamists, the self-defence forces used mainly automatic weapons like Kalashnikovs, RPGs and modern-day “tachankas” (pick-up trucks with dushkas installed on the back).

An armoured vehicle of the YPG

The USA and their allies did not even stop to think about the fact that technological assistance was indispensable for the military defense for Rojava. At the same time, American technology is actively sent to army and police units of neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan; US army instructors and advisors travel there as well.

Rojava has virtually no foreign allies in this war.

Russia and Iran help the official Syrian government. The USA and its allies help anti-government groups with the exception of the Islamic Califate. However, the USA’s allies Qatar and Turkey aid the latter. The third force, Rojava, which neither actively fights Bashar al-Assad, nor supports him, has to be self-sufficient. While this fact is detrimental for the self-defence forces, in terms of political autonomy, it works in the favour of Rojava.

More technical equipment

It makes you think: this means Rojava is not really with the USA, nor with the regime of Bashar al-Assad─which, despite the presence of some individual social advantages, is nevertheless a dictatorship─nor with the totalitarian religious regimes that support the terrorist formation of the Islamic Califate.

In Amudê, in the evening, I pack my bags. My visit to Jazira Canton is drawing to an end. Tomorrow, I will leave Rojava.

Original article in Russian by Alexander Rybin